SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: October 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-track assortment includes the jaunty “Now I’m on My Way” by Howard Smith and Frederick D. Fuller, performed by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir under the direction of Carol Cymbala, and the recently released “Good Tree” by the Hillbilly Thomists, a bluegrass band of Dominican friars.
GOSPEL PERFORMANCE: “I’ve Got the Joy / It Is Summertime in My Heart / Give Me Oil in My Lamp” and “Do Lord” by The Four Girls: Did you know that Hollywood Golden Age actress Jane Russell was part of a traveling gospel music quartet, The Four Girls? In 1954, a year after starring with Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, she sang this medley on an Easter Sunday broadcast alongside fellow group members Connie Haines, Beryl Davis, and Rhonda Fleming (replacing Della Russell), who were Baptist, Episcopalian, and Mormon, respectively. Quite the interdenominational group! All four were active in the Hollywood Christian Group, founded in 1947 by Henrietta Mears.
That choreo, haha! And boy are they aggressive in their evangelism/catechesis of that little girl in the last number!
The Four Girls grew out of an impromptu performance at a fundraising event for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles in fall 1953. A representative of Coral Records was in the audience, and he signed the women immediately. Their recording of the spiritual “Do Lord” sold over 2 million copies.
I get a kick out of Jack Black’s hammy character performances, especially the ones that involve singing. In each of the last two movies I saw him in, he plays a strangely likeable Christian criminal based on a real-life person.
In the dark comedy Bernie (2011) by Richard Linklater, Black plays Bernie Tiede, a small-town Texas mortician who befriends a wealthy widow but, when the emotional toll of her possessiveness and persistent nagging becomes too much, ends up killing her. The opening credit sequence (which comes after a scene of Bernie teaching a class, with great tenderness, on how to prepare a deceased body for viewing) shows him driving in his Lincoln Town Car, jamming to the Florida Boys’ “Love Lifted Me” on the radio. Millennium Entertainment has released a singalong version on YouTube, featuring a take from the movie with added lyrics and a bouncing Jack Black head!
Six years after this Golden Globe–nominated performance, Black starred in The Polka King (2017) as Polish American polka legend Jan Lewan, who was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme. Although he’s a con artist, the movie portrays him as sympathetic—bright-eyed, kind, gentle—and devoutly Catholic. (Yes, he really did meet the pope!) The end credits feature Black as Lewan singing “Thank You So Much, Jesus,” written by Stephen Kaminski, Maya Forbes, and Wallace Wolodarsky for the movie. The repeated “dziekuje” is Polish for “thank you.” Enjoy the accent.
SONG: “Morning Star Rise” by Josh White: Josh White is a singer-songwriter, the founding pastor of Door of Hope church in Portland, Oregon, and cofounder, with Evan Way, of Deeper Well Records. In the early 2010s he formed the neo-gospel collective The Followers, and encouraged one of his parishioners, Liz Vice, to get involved as a vocalist. She is featured on Deeper Well’s first record, Wounded Healer (2012), including on the song “Morning Star Rise”—performed live in 2012 in the video below, with White on lead. (Vice is on the left; Holly Ann is on the right.)
White recognized Vice’s musical talent and wrote a batch of songs for her to record on her own, which became her debut solo album, There’s a Light (2015)—an immense hit. Yay for pastors who notice and nurture the gifts of their people!
>> “The Music of the Psalms in Church History” by W. David O. Taylor, Christ Church, Austin, Texas, October 1, 2022: “For two thousand years, Christians have found the Psalter to be an invaluable resource for worship and prayer. And, like the original psalmists, Christians have felt compelled and inspired to set the text of the psalms to music, of all sorts: from a cappella to choral, from folk to rock, from reggae to gospel, and more. In collaboration with local musicians, David Taylor, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, will explore how Christians in different periods of church history have sung the psalms within corporate worship,” spanning the apostolic, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, modern, and contemporary eras.
A choir will perform several chants (Hebrew, Byzantine, Gregorian) and a motet, and then attendees will be led in a handful of Psalm-based songs, from a hymn of German origin to an African American spiritual to CCM classics. Along the way Taylor will provide historical context and trace a narrative.
>> Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Art Seeking Understanding, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, October 26–28, 2022: Every fall the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University organizes a symposium around a given topic, and this year’s topic is the arts. Registration is still open! The standard cost is $250, or $125 for students. “The notion of art seeking understanding (ars quaerens intellectum) invites association with the notion of faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Just as faith is a gift of grace that grows toward deeper knowledge, so it seems that art is a gift whose practice leads to a deeper order of understanding. This seems true not only for the person who experiences art, but also the artist—whether musician, painter, sculptor, or poet. The 2022 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture invites contributions from across the disciplines (including scholars, artists, and other practitioners) as we explore together how art seeks understanding and thus contributes to human flourishing.”
Their line-up of presenters includes several from within Baylor’s own distinguished ranks, such as composer and liturgist Carlos Colón, theologian Natalie Carnes, art historian Heidi J. Hornik, and literature scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, in addition to famous outside guests like theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie, contemporary nihonga painter Makoto Fujimura, and Early Christian art historian Robin M. Jensen. See a full list by clicking on the boldface link above.
The website does not provide a list of presentation titles, but among the topic suggestions on its call for proposals page are how art contributes to moral and spiritual perception, sensitivity, and/or character formation; the power of imagination; the relation of poetic art to the communication of moral truth; art therapy in pastoral counseling; how musical settings of biblical texts add value to those texts; and how to reconcile the making of religious art with the commandment in Exodus 20:4.
SONG: “The Lord Is My Light” by Lillian Bouknight | Performed by the Notre Dame Folk Choir, dir. Emorja Roberson: “Very little is known about Lillian Bouknight (d. 1990), except that she was an African American from North Carolina, and a soloist and composer in the Pentecostal Holiness movement in the Aliquippam, PA, Community, also serving as a prayer warrior and on the Mother’s Board.” This setting of Psalm 63 that she composed appears in the African American Heritage Hymnal #160.
VIDEO: “Theology through the Arts” by Jeremy Begbie: A pioneer of the field of theology and the arts, UK-born and US-based scholar Jeremy Begbie is the headliner for the Baylor symposium mentioned above. I met him briefly at a Duke conference a few years ago, and he’s such a delightful person, not to mention a phenomenal teacher who often dispenses wisdom from a piano bench. If you’re not familiar with his work, this fourteen-minute video is a great introduction to it. He’s all about demonstrating how instrumental music (his specialization is Western classical) can help unlock the truths of the Christian gospel. Here he talks about the given, the improvised, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Geoffrion’s blog is a wonderful free resource for those looking to engage prayerfully with the art treasures of Chartres Cathedral. New content is typically posted in batches a few times a year, and the archive goes back to 2015. Sometimes Geoffrion digitally isolates certain details of the stained glass to aid in a more concentrated focus.
As I said when I featured the Tree of Jesse window several years ago, Chartres is high on my list of places to visit, for aesthetic, historical, and spiritual reasons. I hope to make it there sometime in the next five years.
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: September 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: This month’s thirty-song lineup includes a tango, a Pentecostal praise song, a playful setting of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A number one, an Americana lament for hard times, a Negro spiritual on sax, Christina Rossetti, guitar evangelist Mother McCollum with a unique Jesus metaphor (!), a 9/11-inspired interfaith prayer that I will write about in a separate post, and songs in Turkish (“Kutsal, Kutsal, Kutsal Allah” = Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God) and Sepedi (“Modimo re boka wena” = God, we praise you).
LECTURE (AUDIO): “God’s Thumbprint” by Frederick Buechner: Ordained minister and Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–nominated author Frederick Buechner died August 15 at age ninety-six. He was a wonderful writer (of both fiction and spiritual nonfiction) and preacher, and I hear him quoted all the time. He once summed up the theme of all his work as “Listen to your life.”
In 1992 Buechner spoke for the biennial Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about how “art and religion are twin expressions of the human spirit.” Discussing poetry, painting, and music, he shows how the arts help us to pay attention. Listen to the talk, “God’s Thumbprint,” on FFW’s Rewrite Radio podcast. It is an expansion of the “Art” entry Buechner wrote in his book Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized (1988); read the full excerpt here.
LECTURE (VIDEO): “Difficult Beauty: Contemporary Art as Spiritual Discipline” by James K. A. Smith: In its content selection and development, the arts quarterly Image, says editor in chief James K. A. Smith, resists both nostalgia (old is better) and progressivism (new is better), charting a third way that he calls “archaic avant-garde.” The journal’s focus is on contemporary art, but contemporary art funded by tradition. Most of the writers and artists they feature see the tradition of religious art as a gift and a launchpad.
In this lunchtime Zoom talk from May 19, 2021, Smith considers why contemporary art so often feels alienating. He focuses on painting, giving a brief history of the onset of modernism in that medium, starting with the impact of photography, which pushed painters beyond the representation of objective reality. He shares compelling quotes by art critic Peter Schjeldahl and philosopher John Carvalho, about how we look and when thinking happens. Smith discusses the need for humility—to be comfortable with the not-knowing, to surrender our desire for mastery and control (i.e., demanding that paintings explain themselves).
What if the art that first alienates us is the art that might also stretch us? Or what if the literature that’s intimidating might also be the literature that has the possibility to kind of break us open in new ways, open us up to others, and even open us up to God? What if the difficulty of contemporary art is a virtue? And what if experiencing that difficulty is actually what we need? (12:42)
The last twenty minutes consists of Q&A and addresses icons, art as propaganda, whether and how to engage art that comes out of a place of despair, and more.
I admit that I find much of contemporary art difficult, often unpleasantly so. A few readers have requested that I feature more abstract art, but I struggle to know how to talk about it. But I do want to learn. Image helps me do that.
ESSAY: “Venice Undone” by Matthew J. Milliner: A core publication of Cardus, Comment magazine is committed to “the difficult work of being faithfully present in culture.” This summer they published an essay by art historian Matthew Milliner reflecting on the Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer exhibitions at the 59th Venice Biennale, one of the art world’s largest and most significant recurring events.
In part 2 of the essay, Milliner considers how the Kiefer show at the Doge’s Palace critiques Venice’s history of military conquest, replacing Titian’s The Conquest of Zara (1584) with an image of an empty tomb that evokes Jesus’s conquest over death. Apocalyptic themes have long been noted in Kiefer’s work; Milliner sees in particular traces of St. Paul and an interrogation of historic Venice’s bombastic displays of wealth and splendor, which are not lasting. And of course there’s the Jacob’s ladder motif. For a silent video tour of the exhibition, see here.
Prompted in part by their use of darkness, Kapoor and Kiefer have been read by some scholars through a lens of despair, but Milliner looks with eyes of hope and sees plenitude and light.
SONG: “Jordan” by Jana Horn: One of Art & Theology’s subscribers sent this to me, and I’m not sure what to make of it, but I definitely find it intriguing, if a bit unsettling. A song from Jana Horn’s debut solo album, Optimism (2022), which Pitchfork calls “cryptic, bewildering, and daringly simple.” “Jordan” is full of veiled biblical allusions and touches on themes of pilgrimage, belief, destruction, incarnation, and burden bearing. I share it here in the spirit of Jamie Smith’s talk above, about not needing to nail down meaning in an artwork—even though I can’t help but ask, “Just who are the two dialogue partners?!” (God the Son and God the Father?)
Horn is a singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, and a fiction-writing graduate student at the University of Virginia–Charlottesville.
Guite discusses how the job of the arts is to link earth and heaven, heaven and earth; where a poem or other work of art stays on only one of those planes, it typically fails. He unpacks Theseus’s monologue from Act 5, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, focusing on these six lines: “The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling, / Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven. / And as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.”
Shakespeare, Guite says, is riffing on the prologue to John’s Gospel.
The Logos . . . is bodied forth perfectly and beautifully in the living, walking poem of Jesus Christ, in whom everything eternal is made particular, and who invites everybody to come towards him . . . because he is a habitation with open doors. So of course in John’s Gospel he says, ‘I am the door’! . . . Open up, walk in! (48:51)
And one more quote from Guite!
The church . . . is founded by one who is himself artistically embodied meaning—meaning made visible, meaning made beautiful, meaning made habitable and hospitable and welcoming in the touch of the body and in the physical event, which is then transfigured, because it is also a meaningful event, because earth and heaven meet. (55:34)
It’s a brilliant and inspiring talk, and it integrates other poetic verse besides Shakespeare’s.
>> “King Clave” by Planet Drum: In 1991 Mickey Hart (best known as a drummer of the Grateful Dead) and Zakir Hussain (a classical tabla virtuoso from Mumbai) formed the Grammy-winning global percussion ensemble Planet Drum, bringing together the world’s greatest rhythm masters into a one-of-a-kind improvisational supergroup. Prompted by ongoing international strife, Planet Drum reconvened over the past two years to record their third album, In the Groove, which released August 5. It features six unique compositions led by Hart, Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju of Nigeria, and Giovanni Hidalgo of Puerto Rico.
The centerpiece of the album is “King Clave” (the clave is a rhythmic pattern), created in partnership with Playing for Change and with funding from the United Nations Population Fund. The four core musicians mentioned above are joined by other percussionists and dancers from around the world. The music video uses the “Alternate Version” of the performance, released separately as a single.
Learn more about the Planet Drum project in this six-minute video:
STILL LIFE EDITION: “The History of the Peace Symbol” by Michael Wright: Did you know that the peace symbol that spread worldwide during the 1960s was designed by a Christian from the UK? (Christian pacifism was one of the underappreciated drivers of the nuclear disarmament and antiwar movements.) Learn more about the symbol’s history and art historical and nautical influences in the August 15, 2022, edition of Michael Wright’s weekly letter on art and spirit, Still Life. Also included is the poem “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai, and four weblinks of interest, such as an article on how the patristic tradition agrees with cognitive neuroscience, and a video of FKA Twigs performing in a church!
Symbolism and allegory abound in medieval religious paintings, encoding profound meanings that can be discerned if we would but take the time to look and to meditate and to understand the world from which these images arose. “The visual image can say things that the theological text can’t,” Beattie asserts. “It can play with the doctrinal truth in ways that allow other meanings to emerge discreetly.”
Though many interpretations of hortus conclusus imagery focus on Mary’s virginity, and indeed that was a primary aspect motivating the creatives who developed such imagery, Beattie draws out themes of new creation and discusses the garden as the human soul.
The other artworks she glosses are:
Resurrection XI by Edward Armitage Robinson (1963)
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: August 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Most months I compile thirty songs and other musical selections into a nonthematic playlist as a way to share good music, mostly from the Christian tradition but otherwise Christian-adjacent. This month’s list includes a traditional Black gospel song performed by Chris Rodrigues and professional spoon player Abby Roach (featured here); a Zulu song from South Africa about holding on to Jesus (bambelela = “hold on”); a song in the voice of Christ Our Mother by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, from her album Gospel Oak; a portion of Barbados-born Judy Bailey’s Caribbean-style setting of the Anglican liturgy; a brass arrangement of a Golden Gate Quartet classic; Palestrina’s beautiful multivoiced setting of a Latin hymn by Bernard of Clairvaux; a future-looking song of celebration by country artist Naomi Judd, who passed away in April; a condensation of “In Christ Alone” by Texas soul artist Micah Edwards; and more.
The two videos below are from the list: a medley of the Twi praise chorus “Ayeyi Wura” (King of Our Praise) from Ghana and “Most High God” from Nigeria, led by Eric Lige at the 2018 Urbana missions conference, and a new arrangement by Marcus & Marketo of “I’ve Got a River of Life,” a song that I have fond memories of singing in children’s church as a kid (with hand motions!) (you can hear a more standard rendition here). The first line is derived from Jesus’s saying in John 7:38 (“Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”), and the refrain “Spring up, O well!” comes from Numbers 21:17, where the Israelites praise God for providing them water in the desert.
Reading books is a key way that I grow intellectually and spiritually, and books are often where I find content to highlight on the blog, be it poems, visual art, people, or ideas. Because I’m not affiliated with an academic institution, I don’t have easy access to a lot of the books I need for my research, and I rely heavily on my personal library (as well as the Marina interlibrary loan system). If you’d like to support the work of Art & Theology, buying me a book from my wish list is a great way to do that! I’ll consider it a birthday gift, as my birthday is Saturday. 😊
>> “Poetry’s Mad Instead” by Abram Van Engen, Reformed Journal: “I believe that poetry has a particular place in the church. I think it responds directly to the call and the invitation of God to ‘sing a new song,’” says Abram Van Engen, chair and professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis and cohost of the podcast Poetry for All. “And in the singing of poetry, the faithful can begin to understand and experience and engage God’s world afresh.” He adds, “Poets often invite us to practice thinking and noticing at a different pace. It is only at a slower speed of processing that we can begin to observe what we have too often missed or ignored.”
In this essay, Van Engen walks readers through the sonnet “Praise in Summer” by Richard Wilbur, which is what he begins with whenever he teaches poetry at church. He teaches you some of the poet’s tools so that you can feel more confident in approaching poems on your own.
>> “In Defense of Fiction: Christian Love for Great Literature” by Leland Ryken: An excellent article, by a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College and author of The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, A Complete Handbook of Literary Forms in the Bible, and more. “With so many valuable nonfiction books available to Christians, many wonder if reading fiction is worth the time. Others view fiction as a form of escapism, a flight from reality and the world of responsibility. But rightly understood, reading fiction clarifies rather than obscures reality. The subject of literature is life, and the best writers offer a portrait of human experience that awakens us to the real world. Fiction tells the truth in ways nonfiction never could, even as it delights our aesthetic sensibilities in the process. Reading fiction may be a form of recreation, but it is the kind that expands the soul and prepares us to reenter reality.”
VISUAL MEDITATION: On Christ and the Samaritan Woman by Jacek Malczewski, by William Collen: William Collen introduced me to this unusual painting on the subject of Christ’s meeting with the woman at the well from John 4—a subject the artist painted several times (e.g., here, here, and here). Whereas Christ is traditionally shown pontificating to the woman with an air of formality, here there is an appealing casualness to their interaction, and the woman dominates the composition.
ART CYCLE: The Hours of Mary Magdalene by Jan L. Richardson: July 22 is the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples and the first witness and preacher of the Resurrection. American artist, writer, and minister Jan L. Richardson created a sequence of collages picturing events from her life, drawing on both the biblical narratives and medieval legends. The structure and presentation (decorative borders, Latin script) were inspired by medieval books of hours, used for the praying of the Divine Office. The text below each image reads, Deus, in adiutorium meum intende; Domine, ad adiuvandum me festina (“O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me”), the first verse of Psalm 70, which is prayed at the start of each of the canonical hours.
According to legend, after Jesus’s ascension Mary Magdalene moved to southern France, where she preached the gospel and performed miracles. The last thirty years of her life she lived as a hermit in a cave. Each time she prayed the hours, she was lifted up to heaven by angels, then brought back down at the end of her devotions.
Richardson put together a delightful little video showcasing the art cycle as well as the song “Mary Magdalena” by her late husband, Garrison Doles.
You can purchase these images as digital downloads from Richardson’s website:
>> “Locus iste” by Anton Bruckner, performed by VOCES8: The British vocal ensemble VOCES8 performs Anton Bruckner’s sacred motet “Locus iste” (This Place) at Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace in Guebwiller, France. Bruckner composed it in 1869 for the dedication of the Votivkapelle (votive chapel) at the New Cathedral in Linz, Austria, where he had been a cathedral organist. The text—a Latin gradual for church dedications and their anniversaries—is informed by Jacob’s saying, after his dream of the ladder uniting heaven and earth, that “surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen. 28:16), and by the story of the burning bush where Moses is told to “put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3:5).
Locus iste a Deo factus est, inaestimabile sacramentum; irreprehensibilis est.
This place is made by God, a priceless sacrament; it is without reproach.
(Or, alternatively:) This dwelling is God’s handiwork; a mystery beyond all price, that cannot be spoken against.
Tabernacle is a musical triptych shaped by the drama of Psalm 19. While this word, tabernacle, is loaded with religious affection within both Jewish and Christian traditions, some modern readers may not be familiar with its implications. Merriam-Webster offers three related definitions: “a house of worship, a receptacle for the consecrated elements of the Eucharist, or a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus.” By extension, it has come to represent a “dwelling place” or a “temporary shelter.” In short, this is no ordinary space, rather it is a place that is set apart, made holy for a terrifying transformative encounter with the Divine.
Fragments of a prayerful hymn-like melody appear underneath this canopy of sounds. Shifting metric changes, polyrhythms, and percussive primal-sounding harmonies climax in a loud, noisy quote from the 16th-century Genevan Psalter.
More extensive program notes can be found in the YouTube video description.
For a much more extensive treatment of the topic, see Spira’s Foreshadowed: Malevich’s “Black Square” and Its Precursors, published this month. And for a faith-positive (non-nihilistic) reading of Malevich’s Black Square that honors the artist’s own views, see pages 209–25 of Jonathan A. Anderson and William A. Dyrness’s Modern Art and the Life of a Culture, where they discuss the work in relation to the Russian icons tradition and “apophatic or ‘negative’ theology—a mode of theology that meditates on the absolute Fullness and Otherness of God by way of negating the verbal, visual and conceptual forms used to signify (and to ‘grasp’) God” (220).
UKRAINIAN MADONNAS: Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and even still continues to aggress, artists have taken up their art to address the war—several drawing on iconography of the Madonna and Child, particularly the Maria lactans (breastfeeding Mary) type. Two Ukrainian artists were inspired by different news photos of young mothers protecting their infants from the shelling in Kyiv in March—one of whom was photographed in a hospital being treated for wounds she sustained from fallen glass while shielding her daughter with her body, and the other hiding from the blasts in a subway station.
These images show the vulnerability of Christ, who is with us in our suffering, and indict those who cause such suffering.
In his response to the war in Ukraine, Serbian artist Michael Galovic, who lives in Australia, also uses Christian iconography: the Theotokos Kyriotissa (Mother of God enthroned with Christ); Archangel Michael, the patron saint of Kyiv, fighting a dragon (Rev. 12:7–8) in an ethereal rendering of a scene from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a fifteenth-century French book of hours; and a hellmouth from the twelfth-century Winchester Psalter. These three medieval images are superimposed on Picasso’s masterwork Guernica, named after the Spanish town bombed by Nazis in 1937 and representative of the horrors of war.
Whereas Frirean’s and Solomennykova’s paintings are more intimate, Galovic takes a more cosmic approach, showing wails of lament from abstracted forms intercut with epic battles between good and evil—but at the calm center, Christ is on the throne, holding the scroll of his good word. History is going somewhere. Hate will be damned. Love will triumph.
>> “Galoba (The Prayer),” performed by Trio Mandili: A sung performance of a poem written in 1858 by the Georgian poet and statesman Ilia Chavchavadze (1837–1907). An English translation follows.
Our Father, who art in heaven, With tenderness I stand before thee on my knees. I ask for neither wealth nor glory; I won’t debase my holy prayer with such matters. I desire instead for my soul to be enlightened by heaven, My heart to be radiant with thy love. Even if my enemies pierce me in the heart, I beg thee: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” Even if my enemies pierce me in the heart, I beg thee: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do!” [source, adapt.]
>> “Peace All Over the World” by Robert Bradley: Written and performed by Detroit musician Robert Bradley, this song originally appeared on the film Playing for Change: A Cinematic Discovery of Street Music (2005). To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, Playing for Change [previously] has remastered it and added new footage from Ukraine.
>> “Du som gick före oss” (You Who Went Before Us) |Words by Olov Hartman, 1968 | Music by Sven-Erik Bäck, 1959 | Performed by VOCES8, 2022: The melody uses all twelve semitones of the octave! I’ve provided a literal English translation of the Swedish below with the help of Google Translate; for a looser but more poetic translation by Fred Kaan, from 1976, see here. Note: The video identifies the song parenthetically as Psalm 74, not because it’s a setting of Psalm 74 from the Bible, but because it is no. 74 in Den svenska Psalmboken, the official hymnal of the Church of Sweden.
Du som gick före oss
längst in i ångesten,
hjälp oss att finna dig,
Herre, i mörkret.
Du som bar all vår skuld
in i förlåtelsen,
du är vårt hjärtas fred,
Jesus, för evigt.
Du som med livets bröd
går genom tid och rum,
giv oss för varje dag,
Kristus, det brödet.
Du som går före oss
ut i en trasig värld,
sänd oss med fred och bröd,
Herre, i världen.
You who went before us
in the depths of anxiety,
help us to find you,
Lord, in the dark.
You who bore all our guilt
you are the peace of our hearts,
You who are the living bread
offered abundantly through all the earth,
give us each day,
dear Christ, that bread.
You who go before us
out into a broken world,
send us out likewise, Lord,
with peace and bread.
EXHIBITION: Afro-Atlantic Histories, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, April 10–July 17, 2022: There are still two more weeks to catch this excellent exhibition in the US capital, which I saw in June, before it travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (December 11, 2022–April 30, 2023) and the Dallas Museum of Art (dates TBA). “For centuries, artists have told and retold the complex histories of the African Diaspora. Explore this enduring legacy in the exhibition Afro-Atlantic Histories, which takes an in-depth look at the historical experiences and cultural formations of Black and African people since the 17th century. More than 130 powerful works of art, including paintings, sculpture, photographs, and time-based media by artists from Africa, Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, bring these narratives to life.”
I wish I had more time to devote to it here before it wraps, as there are so many compelling artworks, but instead let me just share a two-minute video tour, followed by a lecture from April 10, which both provide a good overview:
The exhibition is divided into six sections: Maps and Margins, Enslavements and Emancipations, Everyday Lives, Rites and Rhythms, Portraits, and Resistances and Activisms. Kanitra Fletcher, associate curator of African American and Afro-Diasporic art at the National Gallery of Art, says in her talk,
The word histories in the title indicates the plurality of the narratives represented in the exhibition. They are fictional and nonfictional, mythical and factual. As a framework to coalesce narratives that have been left aside at the margins and forgotten, Afro-Atlantic Histories is open, plural, diverse, and inclusive, refusing the canon of traditional art history. This show resists the idea of a definitive history or a “grand narrative” of the Diaspora and presents diverse accounts of the past that challenge long-established hierarchies and forges new questions and connections that show how complex and intertwined are all of our histories.
Here’s an artwork that isn’t included in either of the above videos and that was new to me:
ONLINE COURSE: “Theology and the Arts,” with Jason Goroncy, Rod Pattenden, and guest artists, September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 and October 21, 2022: Whitley College, a teaching college of the University of Divinity outside Melbourne, is offering a seven-day intensive online course on theology and the arts this fall (description below), taught by the coeditors of the new book Imagination in an Age of Crisis: Soundings from the Arts and Theology. Registration is open to anyone, but participants will need to be available to engage live online from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (Melbourne time) on each of the scheduled days, for lectures, discussions, and other online activities, such as “meet the artist,” gallery visits, interviews, and student presentations. The cost to audit the course is AUD $500 (~ USD $343). There’s also an option to receive academic credit. Professor Goroncy writes,
When, in 1741, George Frideric Handel completed writing the Hallelujah Chorus for his oratorio Messiah, he reportedly told his servant: ‘I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself [sic] seated on His throne, with His Company of Angels’. More recently, the Australian musician Nick Cave described how the gods are closely associated with the flight of the imagination. Both musicians had a sense, each in their own way, of how closely related are the arts and theological work.
Theology and art are often considered separate expressions of human activity, but are they? How might they relate? What influence do they have on one another, and how might such inform our understanding of faith, of the human condition, of the creature’s vocation, and maybe even of God?
The registration deadline is July 15—but if there are still open spots available, it’s possible you could get in after that date. Email Dorothy Morgan at email@example.com for an application form and more information.
SYMPOSIUM: “Humanity Redeemed: The Theological Vision of Georges Rouault,” September 23–24, 2022, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC: I’m considering attending! The early-bird rate, good through July 23, is $80 for the general public and includes a Friday dinner and Saturday lunch. “Georges Rouault (1871–1958) was unique among French modernist artists due to his Christian commitment and its influence on his work. The theological vision unveiled through his art is honest and complex, one that reflects the changing climate and tumultuous events of the early twentieth century. In doing so, Rouault showed the possibility of salvation and hope within the inexplicable suffering and mundane realities of human life. His close friend Jacques Maritain identified this as ‘the art of humanity redeemed.’
“This symposium will gather teachers, pastors, artists, ministry leaders, and others to reflect on the theological vision of Georges Rouault and his ongoing impact. Prominent scholars and practitioners with expertise in theology, art history, philosophy, therapy, and community leadership will be offering papers and leading the discussion. One of the speakers, Philippe Rouault, is the great grandson of Georges Rouault and will be providing a personal introduction to his life, work, and family. In addition, several artists will present new work inspired by Rouault, which will both enrich our experience together and show the ongoing generativity of Rouault’s vision and style.”
SPOTIFY PLAYLIST: July 2022 by Victoria Emily Jones: Includes a thirteenth-century antiphon for the Holy Spirit by Hildegard of Bingen (“Love abounds in all . . .”); a Luganda praise song for children’s choir; an excerpt from an Orthodox Vespers service in the Yup’ik language from Kodiak, Alaska; a gospel-style setting of Psalm 23; and more. Below are live recordings on YouTube of a few songs from the list: a cover by Amir Darzi and Lital Regev of “Long, Long, Long” from the Beatles’ White Album, which songwriter George Harrison said addresses God; “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” by gospel-blues husband-wife duo The War and Treaty; and “Here in the Vineyard of My Lord,” a Primitive Baptist hymn compiled in The Good Old Songs (1913) and performed by Americana/folk music duo Anna & Elizabeth.
As a caveat, I am a Protestant, and while I do have a profound respect and appreciation for icons, my theology of images, including my definition of sacred art, is not the same as the Orthodox Church’s—even though elements of it are influenced by the Orthodox position. All the same, I believe it’s important for Christians of all denominations to understand the significance of icons and what differentiates them from noniconic religious images. Those lines are being blurred a bit by the new schools of iconography coming out of western Ukraine and Poland, which honor tradition even as they push it forward into the contemporary era. Here are a few icon-related videos, articles, and weblinks that I’ve gathered over the past several months.
>> “The Meaning of Icons” by Fr. Maximos Constas, November 13, 2019, Notre Dame Seminary: Father Maximos Constas, professor of patristics and Orthodox spirituality at Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, explains the significance of icons in the Orthodox Church, with special attention to their aesthetic features and theological meaning, which is informed by the church’s Christology and cosmology. He answers such questions as, Why do the figures in icons look bored and unnatural? And, Doesn’t the Second Commandment forbid representations of Christ? He does not address icon veneration or details of the making process.
Constas spends the first fifteen minutes juxtaposing Eastern and Western approaches to religious images, discussing how the Renaissance values of humanism and naturalism came to prevail in the West. The Orthodox, he says, see this as the “secularization” or “carnalization” of sacred art—in its commitment to depicting observable realities, Western art from the Renaissance onward typically lacks overt signs of transcendence.
Constas also discusses the dogmatization of sacred images in the East. Icons are never simply works of art or pedagogical tools, he says. “They were understood to be visual artistic expressions of the church’s theology. And in the same way that church doctrines could not be changed, neither could the image in which the doctrines were embodied.”
Here are some notes I took on the talk, including some transcriptions:
An icon can be a panel painting, a fresco, a mosaic, a relief carving, an enameled plaque, a manuscript illumination, etc. “What ultimately defines an icon has nothing to do with artistic medium or style but rather depends on how the image is used and, most importantly, what it is believed to be. And every icon is a means of spiritual encounter and dialogue. It offers us the possibility of such an encounter because it shares in the holiness of the sacred figure whose likeness it bears.”
An icon is not a work of art but a work of witness that makes use of art.
“Icons are not simply portraits but manifestations of human persons in their new heavenly condition. They are images of the spiritual character of human beings reborn, as it were, in the womb of eternity.”
“The icon has the ability to evoke within me the memory of the forgotten depth of my own being. It enables me to see my true face. It orients me toward my destiny in God. And this vision, this remembrance, this knowledge fills me with unspeakable joy and profound consolation.”
We not only can but must make images of Christ; “to deny the icon is to deny the reality of the Incarnation.”
“All created things are intrinsically good, and all, therefore, have spirit-bearing potentialities. And to this essential goodness and beauty of the material world, the icon bears joyful witness. In the icon, we see matter restored to harmony and so fulfilling its true vocation, which is to reflect and transmit the divine glory. The icon, then, safeguards not only the authenticity of Christ’s physical body, but also the true value of creation in its unfallen state as created by God. Inherent in the very fact of the icon is an optimistic, affirmative vision of the material creation. As spirit-bearing matter, the icon has what we would call eschatological significance—it anticipates the final transfiguration of the cosmos at the last day, when the created world will be delivered from its present bondage to corruption, to quote St. Paul, and will enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
windows, doors, thresholds into heaven (spiritual places of passage)
mirrors, a reflection of their living source
tracks or traces
32:40: Portrayal of figures in icons
Alteration of the natural symmetries and proportions of the body, including the features of the face (eyes and ears enlarged; nose elongated; mouth small and closed)
Full frontality—wholeness, completion, perfection; makes the icon dialogical and relational
Serene, controlled facial expression
No shadows cast; illumined from within
>> “Rajaton hengellinen kuva: Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat” (Boundless Spiritual Image: Images of Suffering and Resurrection) by Ari Luomajoki, March 26, 2021, Kuopio Cathedral, Kuopio, Finland: I don’t speak Finnish, but I share this seventy-minute video for the visuals (and of course for any Finnish speakers!) and to show how contemporary icons are spreading west. In August 2016 under the leadership of Pastor Ari Luomajoki, the Lutheran Monastic Community of Enonkoski in Ihamaniemi, Finland, organized its first international icon workshop (read more here, and follow @LutheranIcon on Facebook), which attracted iconographers from Poland and Ukraine, as well as a few domestic artists. It was reprised in 2017 (I mentioned this second workshop here). Icons that came out of these workshops have been exhibited several times in Finland, and have facilitated relationships that have led to new exhibitions—such as Kärsimyksen ja ylösnousemuksen kuvat (Images of Suffering and Resurrection) at Kuopio Cathedral, which ran March 26–April 11, 2021. Follow the boldface link to see a taping of the opening, which includes opening comments, a tour, and a lecture.
In the first sixteen minutes of the video, Pastor Olli Viitaniemi, one of the main organizers of the exhibition (with Pastor Salla Tyrväinen), shows screen captures from the website he built connected to the exhibition, https://sielunkuvat.net/. At around 16:24 he gives a tour of the exhibition around the church sanctuary.
At 32:48 Luomajoki—who is a Lutheran pastor in Kouvola, Finland, and has a master’s degree in art history—starts his half-hour lecture. He introduces Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica) in Poland and Lviv National Academy of Arts and the Iconart gallery in Ukraine, two centers of contemporary Eastern iconography that inspired the icons project at the Enonkoski monastery in Finland. At 47:41 Luomajoki does side-by-side image comparisons to show similarities and differences across time. At 50:41 he discusses the use of images in early Lutheranism. He goes on to show some examples of religious art in Finland in the past century (including a really compelling Crucifixion painting by Helene Schjerfbeck and crucifix by Paavo Halonen!). He closes by spotlighting Hidden Life in Nazareth by Ivanka Demchuk and a Nativity by Arsen Bereza, participants in the workshop.
Luomajoki is a wonderful photographer of art. Follow him on Instagram @ari.luomajoki.
INTERVIEW with contemporary iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, by Kevin Antlitz: OK, Patheos blog posts are painful to read because of all the obtrusive ads, which is why I rarely link to them. But I’m making an exception for this one, where American Anglican pastor Kevin Antlitz interviews Ukrainian Greek Catholic iconographer Khrystyna Kvyk, who earned a master’s degree in sacral art in 2020. She discusses her process of painting icons, what makes an icon an icon, timelessness and transfiguration, the relationship between tradition and innovation, the idea of divine light as reflected in two of her icons, and more. I really love her work and was delighted to hear some of her own words about it.
NEW CHURCH COMMISSION: Wall paintings at Iglesia de San Nicolás by Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza: Ukrainian artists Ivanka Demchuk and Arsen Bereza—a married couple!—have completed a monumental painting on the east wall of the Catholic church of Saint Nicholas in Granada. It was deeply influenced by Byzantine iconography, in which they’ve both been trained, but also contains some modern abstract and geometric elements.
The church building is from the sixteenth century and recently underwent extensive renovations, finally reopening to the public in April, which is when Demchuk and Bereza’s mural was unveiled. It portrays the Anastasis, the Eastern Orthodox image of Christ’s resurrection, which shows him breaking down the doors of hell to release its captives. In the video (which is in Ukrainian with Spanish subtitles), Demchuk describes how they painted two mandorlas behind him: the almond-shaped one symbolizing his divine light, and a round one symbolizing the cosmos.
BLOG POST: “The Meaning of Melchizedek in Icons” by David Coomler: Though he’s not religious, David Coomler is an expert on Christian icons and often consults on them. On his blog he unpacks the iconography of standard types but also more unusual ones, like You Are a Priest Forever After the Order of Melchizedek, inspired by Hebrews 7. This rare type is meant to show that Jesus is both the offering and the offerer. The variation pictured below shows, I think, three representations of Christ: as crucified seraph (still quite puzzling to me, but Coomler points out that the Greek of Isaiah 9:6 refers to the Messiah as the “Messenger of Great Counsel”), Holy Wisdom (aka Sophia), and high priest—hence the man in bishops’ garb in the back. Wild!
SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS by Lara Downes (with commentary!):
>> Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist (2021): Award-winning pianist and NPR radio host Lara Downes curated an excellent Spotify playlist for Juneteenth last year—a mix of jazz, classical, and soul. It is full of wonderful surprises, introducing me to the work of several African American composers, new and old, such as Wynton Marsalis’s The Democracy! Suite for jazz ensemble; a symphony by William Grant Still titled “Song of a New Race”; “Adoration” by Florence Price (originally written for organ but arranged here for violin and piano); “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork; and “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Jeff Scott, a French hornist who performs “urban classical chamber music.”
There are also several well-known names—Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and more recent popular artists like Jon Batiste and Rhiannon Giddens. Batiste’s arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” is gorgeous, and the music video—wow (see below). It features a group of Black nuns having fun around London—picnicking on a park bench, traversing monkey bars, sharing Jesus with passersby, eating cotton candy, riding bumper cars. It captures the tone of the song perfectly.
From Downes’s list I also really like the blues song “I Knew I Could Fly” by Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, excerpted in the following featurette. It’s from the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which sheds light on African American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope.
Be sure to read the NPR article that introduces the playlist. Downes calls out nine of the musical selections with blurbs that provide some background, and throughout there is a smattering of historical photographs of Black flourishing in and around Washington, DC, from 1904 onward, taken by the Black-owned Scurlock Studio.
>> Songs to Believe In: A Juneteenth Playlist (2022): As I was formatting this post I realized that Downes just published a brand-new playlist for Juneteenth 2022. I haven’t had time to listen yet, but it looks awesome. “I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long in coming,” she writes. “Music that counters the shrieking dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, that offers us comfort in our sorrow and sustenance in our struggle. Songs that ground us with the steadiness of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope and faith and even joy, urging us to stand and fight another day, reminding us that what we are celebrating on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the hardest of times.”
YOUTUBE PLAYLIST: Juneteenth Playlist by Victoria Emily Jones. Nineteen songs of freedom and faith—gospel, pop, funk, R&B, and spirituals. I wanted to choose all live performances or music videos so that there’s a visual element to engage.
One of the songs is “Clap Praise” by Diane White-Clayton, performed by Selah Gospel Choir. It’s a setting of Psalm 47, which opens, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
Dr. Diane White-Clayton is a composer, conductor, pianist, and lecturer in ethnomusicology specializing in Black sacred music. I love the exuberance and all the body percussion in this widely performed piece of hers. I learned about Selah Gospel Choir through Bridge Projects, an art gallery in Los Angeles where they recently performed. The choir was founded in 2007 “as a space for people who want to sing gospel music birthed by the spirit of the Black church and the ancestry of Black community but are either unable to find it in their home place of worship or do not identify with being in a church at all.”
DANCE WORK: Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey: This classic thirty-six-minute work choreographed by the pioneering Alvin Ailey premiered in New York in 1960 and since then has been performed continually around the globe. This particular performance at Lincoln Center premiered online on December 6, 2020, as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s virtual season during the pandemic. “Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.” Ailey said it was born of the “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and his affection for the Baptist church that nurtured him.
All the numbers are great, but my favorite is “Wade in the Water” (part of the “Take Me to the Water” sequence that begins at 9:41). Second favorite: “Fix Me” (5:22).